Legendary author Judy Blume holds a special place in this writer’s heart, a sentiment that may seem peculiar given Blume’s specialty in chronicling the tumultuous coming-of-age of her female protagonists. In what universe does a young man find relatability in such topics as menstruation and training bras? As a child, I was a voracious reader, and would tear through anything in which word was attached to paper. Growing up with two older sisters meant a lot of young adult novels geared toward the female reader (which was borderline taboo for a boy). One of the most memorable reading experiences of my young life was Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, which chronicled its titular heroine’s struggles to understand her ever-changing body and mind. What initially seemed foreign soon became bracingly personal, unlocking the secret struggles of my two older teenage siblings, who, up until that point, seemed both alien and, quite frankly, insane. But Margaret’s struggles also became my own, a realization that lent a certain crystalline understanding: no matter the particularities of age and gender, we all face hardships in the seemingly never-ending battle of growing up.
This translatability comes from how humane Blume was in her storytelling, a trait that singled her out above the hundreds upon hundreds of fellow authors trafficking in similar themes and material. That same humanity is on full display in writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s big-screen adaptation of Margaret, a remarkable achievement given the current state of the tween and teen film landscape, where wish fulfillment and group dance parties have replaced anything resembling authenticity. Craig’s last film, 2016’s The Edge of Seventeen, was similarly grounded in a recognizable reality, plumbing the depths of hostility and narcissism found within its wholly unlikable — and completely relatable — protagonist. Here, we have the titular Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson), only 11 years old and bravely entering the sixth grade after being forced to move from the blissfully bustling streets of New York City to… New Jersey. She’s still a tad naïve in regards to the “joys” of growing up, viewing it as a time in one’s life where anything seems possible. Mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams) and Dad Herbert (Benny Safdie) are supportive, loving, and want only the best for their daughter, as does drama queen grandmother, Sylvia (Kathy Bates). But despite this stable foundation, Margaret often feels a sense of isolation in dealing with the pitfalls of puberty, even despite almost immediately befriending a trio of girls in her new town. It is for this reason that she turns to the Big Man Upstairs, praying for guidance in understanding her hormone-addled body and increasingly fickle psychology.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is as matter-of-fact in its portrayal of religious questioning as it is in such supposedly verboten subjects as menstruation and bra size (at least at the time of the book’s release), eschewing the kid-glove approach most Hollywood productions take and which sadly lead to nothing but fostering guilt and shame in its younger viewers. Mom is Christian and Dad is Jewish, with a traumatic incident involving Barbara’s past leading the parents to adopt a strategy in which Margaret will decide on her own what religion she would like to pursue, if any, and to do so in her own time. That plot detail takes center stage in the film’s overly busy second half, as Margaret’s religious coming-of-age seems to coincide with that of her physical one, a metaphor presented with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Still, kudos to Craig for tackling such potentially divisive subject matter in a way that never feels less than genuine, regardless of the execution’s occasional lack of elegance; in fairness, there exist exactly zero tweens who are void of melodramatic tendencies, and so the specific tenor the film traffics in makes a certain amount of thematic sense.
That ambition, unfortunately, makes for an inconsistent final product, as Craig is unable to juggle so many side characters and subplots in a way that proves dramatically satisfying. She is far more successful in the movie’s first half, which effortlessly cuts between its various characters and plot threads, and hints at a far richer final product than what is ultimately delivered, as focus is eventually (and quite understandably) narrowed to that of our titular character. Mom — and by extension, McAdams — suffers the most, as what starts as a portrait of a woman struggling to find newfound purpose after giving up a fulfilling career for supposed suburban bliss is abandoned long before the credits roll. This is symbolized by Barbara’s never-ending search for the perfect couch, the purchase of which will seemingly tether her to a life she may not want, and a detail which Craig completely boondoggles when the viewer suddenly notices in a random scene that, hey, they have a couch. One would imagine that there is a much longer version of Margaret on the cutting room floor, although McAdams still proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is one of the most innately likable and versatile actresses working in film today, even if her character is ultimately given short shrift. Fortson, for her part, is quite earnest in the lead role, delivering both the virtues and drawbacks that descriptor so often suggests. Craig, meanwhile, does nothing particularly adventurous visually — not that the film calls for it — but she does at least manage to make her ‘70s setting feel both effectively specific and paradoxically timeless. In the end, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret isn’t a perfect film and ultimately struggles to find a necessary balance, but it more often than not does justice to Blume’s singular authorial voice and resolved approach to telling young women’s stories, and that certainly deserves a few Hallelujahs.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 17.